Friday, September 29, 2006

My Fifteen Minutes

from Jacqueline

Actually, that is a gross exaggeration – it was only three minutes. And it was more than a little scary. Cornelia, I could well have joined you in the upchucking stakes!

The escapade began last Friday afternoon, when I found out that the CBS Early Show wanted to record a segment about me and my novels on the following Monday afternoon. Luckily I had only two days to get my knickers in a twist, as we say in Britain. Some people take to this sort of thing with ease, calmly going forth where more famed ones have gone before, confident of their celebrity. First, as we all know, I am not a celebrity, and second, I almost ran the other way, but the publicity team at my publishers were just about dancing in the streets at this most wondrous thing – an author on the box!

The day dawned. Well, actually, no, it didn’t dawn for me, because I couldn’t sleep the night before. So active were the butterflies inside me, that there was no peaceful coming of dawn. I was on my way to the airport in Pittsburg by seven o’clock anyway. I finally arrived at my hotel in New York and dashed out again. Retail therapy was in order. Being a savvy “on the road” dresser, I had packed only garb in black, white and beige (those safe colors that go with each other) for a month away, and had been told by someone, somewhere, that you shouldn’t really go for black, white and beige on camera unless you’re an established TV presence – a Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour or Madonna. J. Winspear clearly needed help with the old attire. I came back with brown, which may seem a bit, well, muddy, but I thought it would be better than any other color I could come up with. I thought it would be fine. Not so the bill for this insouciant moment.

Despite being sent out to put powder on my face by the cameraman (I am not a big one for make-up, considering myself somewhat inept even with a mascara wand), everything went smoothly, more so than I could have imagined. The crew (two of whom filmed the Katie Couric/Condi Rice interview for 60 minutes – that’s a good two degrees from the White House right there) were delightful, and kept saying how nice it was to work with an ordinary person for a change. And I have to say, it staggered me later, when I reflected upon this adventure, how quickly one gets used to a strange man with headphones poking around one’s waistband with wires and threading more wires up through one’s jacket.

I couldn’t bring myself to watch the Early Show on Thursday morning, so I took off down to the hotel fitness center, to pound out the time on the treadmill and wait for someone (a friend, a husband) to let me know how it all turned out. And I still haven’t watched it, but if you are interested, there’s a video clip available at the following link:

Of course, one of the slight snafus was in procurement of a suitable photograph of me as a child. As you all know from my posts sent while in England, my parents live in a rural area, have no internet access and even in the town four miles away wouldn’t know where to go to get online. CBS wanted a pic of me as a kid (I possess no such thing) so I ‘phoned my mother, asked if she could track down a place that would scan and send a photo. Then told her exactly - and I mean, exactly - which photo to send. I added that there was no need to send more than that one photo, the only one I could remember that does not make me look like a little devil. My mother – a most efficient woman – had the photo scanned and sent to my publisher within the hour. I knew this because I received a copy of the email, along with a note: “Photos of Jackie, from her mum.”

Note plural. Photos. I opened the file with some trepidation, and all but passed out. There I would be, on national TV with my scraggy braids, that little devil grin and – oh dear – those bangs my mother used to cut herself. She was so scared that she might accidentally poke my eye out, that the line of hair that began above eye level ended up somewhere around my scalp. And – as I have just said – on national TV. Another reason for not watching the show.

So, that was it. My three minutes, over and done.

I’m not at Bouchercon, as you have probably guessed. For some reason my name was on the website as attending, but I knew from the outset that I wouldn’t be able to go, given the book tour. This morning I am Ho-omeward Bound, oh yes, I’m ... Ho-omeward Bound (thank you, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel), then on Saturday I’m at the Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival, which should be fun, plus I don’t have to travel that far to get there.

I can’t wait to get into my own kitchen, put the kettle on, make a cup of tea and sit down in the garden with my feet up. I might even watch a little recorded TV.

Until next week ...

PS: My mother has recently discovered this blog. I knew when she began a call with, "So, did you go to the doctor about that clot-like bruise?"

Ho-omeward Bound, Oh Yes I'm ...

from Jacqueline

This is not my prepared post for today. The hotel broadband was not working and I am just about to check out. At the first opportunity I will post the prepared little story for today - about my fifteen (actually, it was three) minutes of well, sort of, almost, nearly ... (actually, not even close) fame on national TV this week.

In the meantime, with an anthem of lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel in my head ...

I'm Ho-omeward Bound.

Look for a post later on today.

In the meantime, gotta ticket and, um, suitcase in hand ...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Scout Grows Up

From James

One of my favorite books of all time is Harper Lee’s "To Kill A Mockingbird." I think about Scout and Atticus Finch probably more than most normal human beings do, but as the saying goes, “Why be normal?” My children are almost old enough to read it and I can’t wait to re-read it and talk to them about it.

Being such a fan, you can probably imagine how excited I was to come across a real-life Scout and Atticus story. In this story, “Scout” grew up to be a federal judge named Phyllis Kravitch.

Since 1979 Judge Kravitch has served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. When she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter she was only the third woman in the United States to become a United States Circuit Judge and the first female federal judge in the Southeast. Before that, she practiced law in Savannah, Georgia and was the first female Superior Court Judge in the state.

And she is quite a good storyteller.

Back in 1983, I worked in Atlanta for one of her colleagues on the court, Thomas A. Clark—who, by the way, is one of the greatest human beings I have ever known (see my website for more on "Judge"). A story circulated throughout the courthouse about Judge Kravitch, and for many years, I wondered if it was actually true. I spoke with Judge Kravitch last spring, and she confirmed it. Yup, absolutely true.

Judge Kravitch flew to Atlanta from Savannah to hear oral argument on a panel with two other federal judges. She was standing at the curb at the airport, about to get into a cab, when a man cut in front of her and announced that he was “late for court.” He stole her cab and headed off to the courthouse.

Now, imagine that poor man’s surprise when he stepped up to the podium in the federal court of appeals, said his obligatory “May it please the court,” and saw Judge Kravitch—the victim of his cab robbery—staring down at him.

Great story. But Judge Kravitch has another one I’d like to share with you, too. She was kind enough to include it in my latest book. Last week I mentioned that my first young adult novel was just published—a fantasy legal thriller called "Leapholes" that allows kids to enter into law books, travel through time and meet people like Rosa Parks and Dred Scott. As an Afterword to Leapholes, the American Bar Association asked some famous lawyers to tell kids in their own words what inspired them to become a lawyer. There were many wonderful stories, but here is one of my favorites, compliments of Judge Kravitch:

"As a young girl growing up in Georgia in the 1920s and 30s I never considered a legal career. Rather I envisioned myself pursuing dance and becoming a ballerina. However, when I was eleven years old, my father, a trial attorney,was appointed by the court to represent an African-American man who had beenaccused of murder. The case was highly publicized and – because of thedefendant’s race – made my father very unpopular. As a result I was shunned bysome of my schoolmates, and was the only girl in my scout troop not invited toanother girl’s birthday party. This upset me very much. In his attempt toconsole me, my father explained the importance of our Constitution, andespecially the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees everyone accused of a crime theright to a jury trial and to be represented by an attorney which, he explained,meant regardless of a defendant’s race, wealth or social status. At the time this seemed somewhat abstract, and certainly didn’t make me feel any better about being excluded. He finally said "when you are a little older you will understand that there are more important things in life than birthday parties."

Over the next few years I began to understand what he meant as he taught me more about the Constitution, our judicial system and the role of lawyers in helping others and protecting the rights and liberties of us all. The more I learned the more interested I became.

Although few women were in the legal profession at that time, especially in the South, my father encouraged me to go to law school and practice law. I followed his advice and his example and it is a decision I have never regretted.”

Like I said: Real life Scout and Atticus Finch. Don’t you love a happy ending?

NOTE: Judge Kravitch’s piece is copyright protected: © Copyright Phyllis Kravitch 2006. All rights reserved, printed in "Leapholes," (c) Copyright James Grippando 2006, All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Bcon, Baby!

By Cornelia

Here is what I feel like most of the year:

Unless school is out, and I feel like this:

(except for having two daughters instead of four sons and a dog, and of course NOT being married to David Niven)

And here is what my house looks like:

Sometimes I make contact with the outside world on an actual telephone, rather than by email:

But those moments are pretty rare.

Annually for the last three years, however, I have taken off for a distant city to hang out with all these other groovy crime-bookish type persons at a wonderful thing called Bouchercon.

The prospect always makes me feel like this:

One of the coolest things about going to Bouchercon is that I get to stay in a hotel room, which contains towels and sheets and stuff that I did not have to personally launder.

Well, okay, the first year I stayed in the youth hostel in Toronto, so I got one sheet to make my bed with and had to bring my own towel, but it was painted really groovy colors (actual photo of actual hostel interior):

which pretty much made up for the towel thing.

Although if you ever stay in a youth hostel once you are forty-plus years old, I recommend earplugs and an eyeshade, even if you get the single room:

Because you are not allowed to tell your fellow guests to be quiet, since they are Other People's Children.

Last year, though, I got to room with my secret twin Andi Shechter in more grownup accomodations.

This year we will be doing the same.

The only problem is that we talk too much and don't sleep a whole lot. But here is one thing we don't have time for at Bcon:

And we will also have a gathering of three members of our band, the Sad Anoraks, because Louise Ure will be there too:

But we will miss our fourth member Shaz Wheeler:

Sandra Ruttan and I have threatened to get tattoos:

I already have one-and-a-half myself, but I think she will chicken out.

And I get to be on a panel:

(Only it will be with Ken Bruen, Alafaire Burke, Laura Lippman, and Zoe Sharp {in alphabetical order} at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning--and I bet we won't have to wear masks)

This is the first time I will be at Bouchercon as an actually published person:

Which still feels like I'm hallucinating, even though I am trying to finish editing my SECOND book:

SO if you're reading this and will be in Madison for Bcon, please come up and say hey, and we should hoist a few:

And party like cheesy ersatz bohemians:

Dudes, I am SO STOKED!!!

"Lt. Stanley H. Levine Believed To Have Escaped Death."

By Paul--

Last week, after subscribing to a search engine called newspaper archive, I entered my father's name in the window and clicked the mouse. The monitor flickered with the front page of The Williamsport (PA) Gazette-Bulletin, September 14, 1945. There was a photo of my father in his Air Force uniform, and the headline: "Navigator on Doomed Plane Reported Safe." The drop-headline read: "Lt. Stanley H. Levine Believed to Have Escaped Death."

I tried to imagine my mother's reaction to the news. Sally Levine had been waiting five weeks after having been told by the War Department that my father and his B-29 crew were M.I.A. The crew had d borrowed an aircraft, the "Nip Clipper,"
because their own, the "Sad Tomato," was grounded with mechanical problems. The crew was part of a wave of 30 B-29s that had taken off from Tinian and dropped 1128 incendiary bombs over the industrial area of Yawata on the Japanese mainland. The craft was struck by anti-aircraft fire; an engine burst into flame and spread to the wing. Captain George Keller gave the order to bail out.

It was August 8, just after Hiroshomia and before Nagasaki. Ten of the eleven crew members survived the plunge into the Sea of Japan and floated in rafts for several days before being captured by a Japanese fishing vessel. The surviving crew members were taken to "Hiroshima Prison Camp Number One," which was actually 35 miles from the destroyed city on the island of Mukaishima. The official Japanese surrender -- you remember those amazing photos on the U.S.S. Missouri -- was still two weeks away, and P.O.W.'s were routinely being slaughtered by angry Japanese soldiers.

One morning, Japanese militia members lined up the 10 Americans in front of straw baskets. The men were to be beheaded by swords. A courageous Japanese Army military policeman named Nobuichi Fukui intervened and saved the crew. For the next 40 years, my father and Fukui remained pen pals, sending each other holiday cards and family photos.

Soon, the Japanese guards abandoned their posts and the American, British, and Australian prisoners took over the prison camp. The crew members found some paint and wrote "OX-23 Crew Is Here" on the roof of the barracks. The sign was seen by American aircraft, resulting in the newspaper story below:

HUGHESVILLE--An unofficial report that Lt. Stanley H. Levine, son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Levine, of North Main Street, Hughesville, is a prisoner of the Japanese and presumably well and safe, was received here Thursday.

The wife of the pilot of the B-29, on which the local officer was serving as a navigator when the craft was shot down off the Japanese mainland Aug. 8, has informed his parents that she learned the crew is safe. No official message has been received from the War Departmen

According to the letter, a U.S. plane stationed on Tinian Island was flying over an unknown area of Japan Aug. 31 and its crew was attracted by a message printed on top of the building. It read: OX-23 Crew Is Here."

Returning immediately to their home base the fliers reported the incident to headquarters and learned the number was the identification of the missing plane. Information as to the message seen in Japan was sent to the pilot's wife, who resides in Fort Wayne, Ind. by a member of the crew which sighted the building. The airmen also indicated the prisoners soon would be freed by American occupational forces.

Lieutenant Levine and his 10 comrades were returning from their 17th bombing missing when...
(Continued on Page 15, Column 1

And that's the end of it. I couldn't recover the jump page. One tragic end note. Captain George Keller's wife had been informed that all the crew members were safe, but that was a mistake. Captain Keller was the last to bail out of the flaming aircraft, and his chute never opened. He did not live to see the Japanese mainland. The other 10 crew members returned home safely. My father died at age 76, in 1996.

By Paul

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Fool to Fame

Patty here...

Last week I was talking to my friend Brigitta Dau about how different people react to fame. I can’t remember what brought on the discussion except that she’s an actor and I’m a writer and, as such, our crafts require us to be students of human behavior. Neither of us is famous, though she may well be some day because she has a sharp wit, a ready laugh, and a difficult-to-define quality that some people call “it.”

I told Brigitta an anecdote I’d heard some years back about an aging Famous Author who lived in a smallish resort town inhabited by many people in the entertainment business. Famous Author was lamenting the lack of exercise opportunities whereupon he was asked why he didn’t just go out for an early morning walk in the nearby hills. Famous Author was aghast and replied, “Because I’d be mobbed.”

By whom? I wondered. Sleepless coyotes?

True, he had achieved tremendous success, but he hadn’t written a novel in many years. And frankly, I wouldn’t have recognized him if he was standing next to me in the produce aisle at Vons, squeezing the kumquats.

It was then that I realized I wouldn’t recognize most famous authors if I passed them on the street. I tried to picture Dan Brown's face. Couldn't. James Patterson. Nope. Robert James Waller. Huh?

I would recognize J.K. Rowling. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, and I've seen Ms. Rowling interviewed on television. Unlike Famous Author, she seemed nonplussed by her fame. Her humility made me root for her even more. I had that same reaction when I read a recent article about Janet Fitch.

Fitch’s first published novel was White Oleander, which was an Oprah book selection, sold multi-millions of copies, and was made into a movie starring Michelle Pheiffer and Renee Zellweger. I loved the book and the movie. Her second novel, Paint it Black, was just released last week, and from all the critical praise being heaped upon it, it will likely be another blockbuster.

The author was profiled last Wednesday in an article by August Brown in the Los Angeles Times “Calendar” section. Fitch revealed that two 300-page manuscripts (both failed attempts to write a second book) lay moldering in the dark recesses of her desk drawer. Paint it Black was her third try.

“When you have success, people think you know what you’re doing, and you start to agree with them, you think you can conquer the world. But you go from grandiosity to panic. My editor would call and I’d say “it’s fine, going great,” and I couldn’t bring myself to admit it wasn’t happening.”

Later in the article, Samantha Dunn says this about the author:

“You know how some people in writing workshops are stars of the group? Janet was not the star. But she kept at it. She’s done an amazing job of keeping a level head, and she’s gone out of her way to bring everybody along with her. She’s a 3 a.m. kind of friend.”

A 3 a.m. kind of friend. I like that. Janet Fitch sounds like the sort of person I’d be pleased to know. There was a photograph of her next to the newspaper article, so I know what she looks like now. If I ever run into her on an early morning walk, I promise—no mobbing. In truth, if that ever happens I probably won't recognize her. But somehow I doubt that she’d mind one way or the other. She seems to have survived the fame game and landed butter side up. Way to go, Janet.

p.s. This Wednesday I'm off to Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention. I'm on a panel on Thursday at 1: 30 p.m. called "But what I really wanted to do was..." The panelists will be revealing some of the wacky jobs we've held in the past and how our experiences became plots for our novels. Hope to see you there! p-

Friday, September 22, 2006

Almost Home ....

Washington, the seat of power, which is probably why so much ... uh-oh, this is a public website, we all know where I was just about to go, so I’d better not. The MESSENGER OF TRUTH book tour continues: I’m in Washington D.C. today, having flown in from Nashville yesterday, and tomorrow it’s Pittsburg. After almost three weeks of non-stop flying my ears are ringing, my sinuses are playing up and I have pulled my back something fierce while wrangling my suitcase from the baggage claim carousel in Cleveland. Which is why the astute publicity folk at my publishers decided that I should have a bit of a treat this week – a couple of hours and a hot stone massage at a spa in Milwaukee. Oh yes, that’s the kind of schedule change I really like!

I’m from the kind of background where the nearest you came to being pampered was a gift of cheap bath salts for Christmas, those old-fashioned square blocks that came in too-sweet scents like “rose” or “violet,” and had pink and blue flowers on the box. They would sit in the bathrom for ages and ages, crumbling into oblivion, not because I didn’t bathe, but because I didn’t have time to linger – lingering meant that you were a shirker as far as work was concerned, and there was always a job to be done somewhere in our house. Which is why I took to the spa experience like a duck to water, though I was well into my forties before I had even been near such a thing – I'd never even had a proper manicure!

So, there I was at a spa in Milwaukee, face down on the massage table, being wafted into a netherworld of relaxation, when the massage therapist says, “Have you had that mark on the back of your leg for long?”
Immediate return from zone of pleasure.
“What mark?”
She slaps another hot stone on my back.
“That thing that looks like an old bruise.”
I close my eyes again and shrug, but this girl was determined, in a spa-like way.
“Only ... it doesn’t look like a bruise.”
“What do you mean? I bruise easily, so it’s probably an old one.”
“Well, this looks like it could be a blood clot – you might want to keep an eye on it”
Thinks: Keep an eye on it? Keep and eye on it? 2,700 miles away from my doctor, a blood clot in my leg, still hours and hours of flying in front of me with a deep vein thrombosis, and you want me to keep an eye on it?
“Do you think it’ll be OK?” I said, trying not to sound just a little concerned.
“Hmmm. It should be, but watch it.”
She rubbed another one of those stones between my shoulder blades, but the magic was gone, evaporated. I twisted my back again in the shower room trying to have a gander at the offending clot-like thing, which I have since ignored. I’m sure it’s a bruise.

Last night I was looking back at some essays I’d written ages ago, penned as an introduction to several pieces I’d completed for a class on memoir. I came across the following:

“There are days in California, perhaps just after a winter rainstorm, or when the light is glancing through the trees just so on a morning in mid-April, that I could close my eyes and think that I am in Kent. But I am not and the truth of the matter is that the feeling only lasts for so long before America crashes into my daydream. Sometimes I think of going back for longer than the two weeks here and two weeks there, but another truth is that I am neither here nor there. I do not belong to Kent any more, even though it is the cornerstone of my heart, of who I know myself to be. And though this is my home now, I do not belong as someone who was born in this country belongs. Instead I am a renter on this earth, living in this place or that and leaving the ghosts of my memories there behind me. But I do so love Kent.”

Kent is the county in southern England where I was born and raised. I’ve written about it many times, as if tweaking my roots to see if they are still there. But what struck me was “neither here not there.” There it was again, and so timely. I know I’ve written about this before, but it came up again yesterday, in conversation with the delightful woman who was my media escort for the day – a naturalized U.S. citizen who came to this country from Lebanon some 30 years ago. We had the kind of conversation that I have had before with fellow immigrants to this country, about being “neither here nor there.” After about four years (and many seem to agree that four years is the cut-off point), you feel different when you return to your own country, not quite slotting into place. And then in America, even though you’ve worn a place for yourself, much as rock is fashioned by the sea, you are still different.

Not that the feeling is necessarily uncomfortable, it’s just what it is. As an American who has lived for most of his adult life in Britain, writer Bill Bryson speaks of this with great humor and insight. My friend Glenda lived in the UK for seventeen years or so. When she goes back to the UK, she says, “I’m going home to London.” And when it’s time for her return flight to the States, she says, “I’m going home to California.” I think she now calls India home, too.

So we talked about this phenomenon, my Lebanese friend and I, and in that time I felt as if I were with kin. There we were, both with our accents, both with a slight American rhythm to our speech, each of us talking about our two countries – America/Lebanon; America/Britain - as if discussing family: with great affection, with some shame at the errors and terrors we’ve seen, frustration at the things we’d like to change, and pride at what we perceived to be the very best in those lands we call "home." The fact that she had spent time in the UK and I have visited the Middle East didn’t hurt either. I don’t know that we came to great conclusions, and we certainly didn't change the world in this, the seat of power. But perhaps in that there is a key. At the end of the day, it’s the things that brought us together that were really important – even those things we disagreed upon. Anything else was neither here nor there.

California here I come – seven days and counting! Mind you, home for a week, then off again ....

And for those of you who've asked for an update on Sara, well, my breath of southerly wind is still in some trouble. With the infection not abating following her tooth extraction and various other measures to try to cure her, she finally had a major procedure about 11 days ago - a "bone flap" operation in which the cheekbone is elevated to allow the surgeon greater access via an incision, then they try to remove as much debris and undesirable matter as possible. She's had daily sinus flushes with antiseptic via a tube in her forehead, which was removed yesterday. Now we are almost to a place, Sara and me, where we are on our own, because vets only have so many options. We've been there before in the relatively short time we've been together, so we'll make our decisions as a team, horse and human, and I know Sara will let me know when she's had enough of trying to fix this thing. In the meantime, she's eating, she's full of energy, so I'm told, and she still has her attitude. Ah, the attitude - music to my ears - all the time she's an opinionated diva of a mare, I know we have a chance.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

It Feels Like the First Time

From James

Foreigner. That’s who sang the song with the title of today’s blog—the song that you are now unable to get out of your head, thanks to me. Sorry.

So now that we’ve put that behind us, let’s talk books.

When my first novel was released in 1994, I got some advice from a wise older (I said older, not old) lawyer-turned-author by the name of Paul Levine. His words were something to the effect that I should enjoy every minute of it, “There will never be another first book.”

For the next ten novels, I’d have to say he was right. Sure, I still get a thrill when I walk into a bookstore and see my newest novel on the shelf. Any writer who doesn’t feel that thrill should probably stop writing. But it has never quite been like that first book.

Until now.

Last Friday I launched my fist young adult novel, Leapholes. Over 200 people turned up at Books & Books in Coral Gables for the event. Every chair was taken, people were standing in the aisles, more were sitting outside in the courtyard and listening only to the audio. Kids crowded onto the floor in front of me. My own children were there, too, still young enough to think that their dad is cool. This was better than my first book.

“Daddy, was Rosa Parks a real person?”

My daughter Kaylee asked me that question in February 2003, after learning about the civil rights movement in the first grade. I told her that she was real; that her arrest in 1955 started a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; and that the battle eventually ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Can we go there?” she asked.
“The Supreme Court?”
“Where then?”
“Nineteen fifty-five,” she said.

She was making a joke, and I laughed. But then I thought to myself: Why not? I liked making up bedtime stories for my kids, and I’d even written poems for them. Every time the Grippando family visited a bookstore, Kaylee and her little brother Ryan would hunt down one of my novels for adults and ask if they could buy it. I would explain that I had plenty of free copies at home, but they wouldn’t be reading them until they were in high school. Seeing their disappointment made me want to write a book that I could share with them as children. I also liked the idea of helping them understand what I did as a trial lawyer. So I was immediately taken with this idea of traveling back in time and meeting people like Rosa Parks who were involved in famous legal cases.

Harry Potter Meets John Grisham—Cool!

So I came up with the story of a boy named Ryan (my son's name is Ryan), a boy who hates middle school and who is in a lot of troube--trouble with the law. The one person who can help Ryan is a mysterious old lawyer named Hezekiah. Hezekiah may have magical powers, or he may have the most elaborate computerized law library ever conceived. Either way, together, Ryan and Hezekiah do their legal research by zooming through “leapholes,” physically entering the law books, and coming face-to-face with actual people from some of our nation’s most famous cases—like Rosa Parks—who will help Ryan defend himself in court.

So, that was the concept—a work of fiction that incorporated real cases. The hard part was trying to figure out what cases to put into the story.

"Hey, was that my Grandma you just threw overboard?"

On April 19, 1841, the American ship William Brown hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic while en route from Liverpool to Philadelphia. It was loaded with Irish emigrants. Roughly half the passengers went down with the ship, and the rest piled into two lifeboats. The boat commanded by the first mate was so badly overloaded that it began to sink. In the face of crashing waves and a driving rainstorm, the first mate in utter desperation ordered his crew to lighten the load. Twelve men and two women were thrown overboard and drowned at sea.

When the survivors finally reached land, one of the crewmen who had thrown passengers overboard faced criminal charges. It was undisputed that the lifeboat would have sunk and all would have perished if it had remained in its overloaded state. However, the American judge who decided the prisoner’s fate wrote that the passengers should have cast lots to determine who should live and who should die. This opinion sparked sharp debate among jurists and legal scholars. Some believed that casting lots was fair, almost an appeal to God. Others believed that casting lots was effectively "playing God," a practice that dehumanized all of us.

What do you think?

Sounds like heady stuff for middle schoolers, but it’s all in the story telling. And in writing Leapholes, I adhered to Rule #1: keep it fun. But I also kept it accurate. The case of The William Brown, for example, is reported at United States v. Holmes (1842).

Legal Evil

A large part of the book is set where Legal Evil lives. This is where Ryan must go after his friend Hezekiah gets trapped in an old law book without a return leaphole. I figured that Legal Evil should live in the worst decision the Supreme Court has ever decided. I won't spoil the mystery by telling you which case that is, but I can tell you that it's in the same general neighborhood as Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Dred Scott was a slave whose owner took him into Illinois (a free state) and Wisconsin (a free territory) for twelve years. When his owner took him back to Missouri and said you're still my slave, Dred basically said, "Ain't happenin' dude." He sued his owner saying that he was free, because his owner had taken him into free territory.

The Supreme Court sided with the slave owner. The cool thing about this case (at least for Leapholes) is that the Justice who wrote that opinion--Chief Justice Roger Taney--was the PERFECT candidate for legal evil personified--my villian. If I were not a computer idiot, I'd show you his picture. Google him. Does he look happy to you?

The ABA--and I don't mean the American Booksellers Association

One other cool thing about Leapholes is that it is the first novel for young adults ever published by the American Bar Association. The ABA is doing a wonderful job sharing the book with schools across the country. And teaming up with the ABA has allowed me do things I couldn’t possibly do with another publisher.

Take the Afterword, for example. We asked some famous lawyers and lawyer/authors to tell middle school kids in their own words why they became a lawyer. The submissions were incredible, and we were able to put together an allstar line up that includes former U.S. Attorneys General Richard Thornburgh and Benjamin Civiletti; U.S. Senator Mel Martinez; famous trial lawyers Roy Black, David Boies, and Willie Gary; lawyer/authors David Baldacci, Linda Fairstein, Jeremiah Healy, Phillip Margolin, and Lisa Scottoline; Judge Phyllis Kravitch (longest-sitting female federal judge in America); Lance Liebman (Director of the prestigious American Law Institute), Jamie Gorelick (former 9/11 Commisioner and Deputy U.S. Attorney General); Judge Marilyn Milian (the “People’s Court” judge) and two NFL Hall of Fame Footballs players who are also lawyers, Nick Buoniconti and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan C. Page. In appreciation of their contributions I’m donating a portion of the profits from Leapholes to charity to promote children’s literacy.

So check it out. Have fun. Be a kid again.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Nehru Slept Here...

Am deadlining like crazy, so this is an old article about my very favorite hotel ever, The Imperial in New Delhi. If you should ever find yourself wanting a place to stay in that city, this is an amazing place to hang out.

The "recent trip" referred to below was actually for our tenth wedding anniversary. We celebrated our eighteenth this past Sunday. Time sure flies when you're old and boring....

As my husband and I climbed into a cab on a recent trip to India, I thought again that the first and most powerful impression one has of this country is always olfactory. The air is spiked with sandalwood, coriander, patchouli, hair pomade, woodsmoke, urine--a grab-bag profusion of floral wonder and, Oh, the humanity! There is nothing else in the world that smells like this; the closest thing would be a Cajun-spiced public men's room in which someone has just dropped a liter of Shalimar from a great height.

It can be overwhelming, intoxicating. After a fifteen-hour flight it knocks you off balance. And then there is the fact that the colors are different, here. Even driving through the darkened streets at three a.m., they seem dusty, somehow, and always just a shade off what your eye expects. There were, for instance, dimly mauve elephants dozing by the side of the highway, tucked amongst the makeshift tents full of people. And then, of course, what you're seeing is most likely pretty different, too (at least for the average North American business traveler).

As we neared the city it seemed every traffic island had fifty men asleep on the concrete, laid out neat as buffet cutlery beneath the buzzing streetlights. Everything seemed to be buzzing, in fact--especially my head. I longed to lie down, to not be in motion any more, to just chill for a bit before I faced the full sub-continental assault on the senses. Thankfully, I had been here before, and had booked us a room in what is perhaps my favorite hotel in the world.

The driver pulled through the wrought-iron gates of the Hotel Imperial, then slowly cruised along the driveway between a long allee of palm trees, surrounded by gardens. We were ushered into the great, cool marble lobby by a silent and turbaned doorman who might have just wandered out from the pages of a Flashman adventure. By the time we were slumped against the ornate wooden paneling of the elevator, being swept up to our floor, the two of us were travel-gritty and nearly cross-eyed with fatigue.

The room, simple by this hostelry's standards, was bigger than many apartments I've occupied in Manhattan. The ceiling was easily twelve feet high, and towering casement windows looked out over the riotous gardens below, framed by long white curtains whose double Aegean-blue stripe along the hem put me in mind of Mother Theresa's headdress.

A good long hot bath and several huge fluffy towels later, we were much repaired. Like well-trained road warriors, we remembered to brush our teeth with the bottled water provided next to the sink, and then fell thankfully into the crisp white sheets of the perfect bed, for once needing no melatonin.

I remembered, upon awakening, the wise words of British author and politician A.P. Herbert: "the critical period in matrimony is breakfast-time." Travel-weary though my husband and I still were, I knew that our union would be fortified by the splendid offerings of the Garden Restaurant (which has a magnificent view of, yes, the hotel's gardens).

We stumbled to the elevator and through the lobby, headed for the Imperial's interpretation of a coffee shop. Once inside the airy white dining rooms, we were gently ushered to a table and furnished almost instantly with an elegantly proportioned pot of excellent coffee, accompanied by tiny pitchers of steamed milk. The waiter then directed us towards the astonishing breakfast laid out along a series of linen-draped refectory tables.

We started in on the flesh of red papaya and perfect mangos, which we dressed with the headily fragrant juice of local limes. Though the western delicacies looked amazing, I tore myself away from the omelet fines herbes offered by a white-jacketed man in a toque, and moved on to the enticing platters of delicately spiced aloo bhaji (the superlative local version of home fries) and a fresh batch of poori, the round bread that, though deep-fried, was so light and airy it was more like a brioche-pita hybrid.

The room itself had undergone some renovation since I'd last been here in 1987. Though remade as space so light-filled it seems part of the grounds outside, the design retains all the charm of the hotel's origins.

The Imperial, one of the world's most reasonable five-star hotels, is one of the legendary Four Maidens of the East (the other three being the Grand Hotel in Calcutta, Raffles Hotel in Singapore and Mumbai's Taj Mahal). Conceived as a place where the English and Indians could meet socially, construction began in 1930 at the express orders of the then Viceroy, Lord Willingdon.

Sardar Ranjit Singh was in charge of the project. Before long, he had to approach the Viceroy to tell him politely it was becoming hard to keep to any sort of budget, as Lady Willingdon's suggestions regarding the hotel's tableware and furniture were "excellent but expensive."

Willingdon had a remedy, requesting that the seat next to him at the grand ball to mark the opening of the hotel be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Ultimately, the place-card went to the Maharaja of Patiala, who paid an appropriately princely sum of 50,000 rupees for the place of honor.

Inaugurated in 1935, the hotel boasts today 285 guest rooms set on eight manicured acres of garden in the center of Delhi. And ironically, the liberal meeting place envisioned by one of the last British Viceroys was the setting for some of the major events of the country's Independence movement.

As journalist-author James Cameron once wrote: "To cross the threshold of the Imperial is to get a crash course in Indian affairs." The place, he continued, "[w]as full to the doors with a fluctuating tide of politicians, princes, newspapermen, idealists, cynics, black marketeers, beards, turbans, uniforms, sweat, Australian whisky and obsessed fanatics of all persuasions."

It was, in fact, in the billiards room here that a large portion of the Indian Constitution was drafted. Jawaharlal Nehru and his Congress Party colleagues held innumerable caucuses and strategy sessions in the ballroom, the individual suites with 14-foot-high ceilings, and the white-trellised verandah.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, future father of Pakistan, was enjoying a round of cucumber sandwiches with Sardar Patel on this same verandah when a Muslim League fanatic took a shot at him. Patel grabbed Jinnah and dragged him indoors to safety.

Nehru frequently dropped by for official receptions after he became Prime Minister, but drank only fresh fruit juice and water. A strict vegetarian and teetotaler, he never sampled the hotel's famous baked Alaska, as it contained eggs and brandy. It is still on the menu, however, for the delectation of those of us who are somewhat less pure.

The head barman, M.S. Bisht, was quoted as having said that he had "laid tables that had two wine glasses for (red and white wine respectively), a glass for the port, another for sherry, a whisky glass, a champagne glass, a cognac/brandy glass, a liqueur glass, and a water goblet--regardless of what those at the table drank." The dapper Mr. Bisht began his career at the Imperial as a "glass boy" in 1953, and can rattle off the names and proper method of concocting mixed drinks that few alive today have sampled, or even heard of.

The quality of the food here is outstanding, as well. Since the hotel's opening, when four of the world's finest chefs were imported (from France, Italy, Lucknow, and Dacca) to man the Imperial's kitchens, the cuisine available has astonished locals and foreigners alike.

The beauty shop, not a spot I normally frequent in hotels, is also unbelievably wonderful. I was worked on from head to toe for two hours by some very cool, entertaining, and talented people. For a hundred dollars, including a ludicrously large tip, I received a manicure, pedicure, massage, haircut, blonding touchup, and facial. I emerged feeling like a different, and much happier, person.

If I had just won the lottery and had free run of the amazing jewelry store in the lobby, I don't think I would ever have come home. Overall, I am seriously tempted to try being the Indian (and overaged) version of Eloise.

There is nothing about the Imperial not to like, unless you are hell-bent on spending the rest of your life staying in a Holiday Inn as some sort of bizarre penance. In all of my travels, I have never felt as refreshed and well cared for as I have here, and yet the service is never obsequious or smarmy. I would make the fifteen-hour flight each way just to spend a weekend at this place.

The Hot Breath of the Santa Anas

By Paul

Brush fires in the canyons.

One hundred degrees in the valleys.

A dry, stinging wind from the desert.

Over the weekend, the Santa Anas tossed tumbleweeds across Southern California. Close your eyes, and you’re driving a 1939 Ford coupe to San Berdoo, sand crackling against the windshield.

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.” Raymond Chandler, TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS.

For a different take on the Santa Anas, check out the wry and witty Susan Kandel’s I DREAMED I MARRIED PERRY MASON. The protagonist, Cece Caruso, rejects a worker’s suggestion that the motor of her courtyard fountain is being fouled by sand from desert winds. “The Santa Anas were invented by Raymond Chandler purely for literary purposes,” Cece says.

Well, they do make a fine metaphor.


I grieve at each business section story reporting that the nation’s newspapers are in worse health than Fidel Castro.

I love newspapers. I have three papers home-delivered, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. I get three newspapers’ daily e-mail digests, Miami Herald, Washington Post, and Legal Times. I skim the websites of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Harrisburg Patriot, the Centre Daily (PA) Times, and Penn State’s student newspaper The Daily Collegian.

When I was a child growing up in dairy farming country of central Pennsylvania, my father subscribed to the New York Times, by mail. The paper arrived two days late, but I started reading every issue. Haven’t stopped.

You can have your 24-hour television news networks with their endless stories of sexy female teachers seducing their male students. I’ll take my newspapers, thank you very much. All this is prompted by Monday's Los Angeles Times which has an excellent tabloid insert, “Parent Reading Guide.”

There are suggested reading lists for children and two dozen “parent tips” for improving children’s literacy. Tip number one is simple but effective: “Read to your child and have your child read to you for at least 20 minutes every day.” Amen.

Last week, I sent two books to my grandchildren.
For Lexi, age four, there’s “Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People,” by Dav Pilkey. And for Jonah, age six, there’s one of my favorite children’s poems, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” by Robert Service with illustrations by Ted Harrison. Many children know by heart the melodious opening (and closing) stanzas:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.


Great story in the current issue of the "Florida Bar News" about our cohort, Jim Grippando. No, he's not one of the dozen lawyers disbarred this month in the Sunshine State. The article features his forthcoming book, LEAPHOLES, which should get young adults reading. LEAPHOLES is a novel that also teaches legal history through the magic of time travel, actual Supreme Court cases coming to life. Do I have that right, Jim? We're hoping you blog about it as soon as the book hits the stores.

Happy Reading.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Out with the old, in with the new

Patty here...


We Angelenos are faithful recyclers. Each week we separate our trash into three bins. Black for garbage. Green for grass and leaves. Blue for recyclables. We do such a good job that the city hasn’t had to create a new landfill in years. Go team!

I just finished my latest book, so Saturday I fired up the shredder and cleaned out my office. What a mess. There were stacks of paper and sections of the Los Angeles Times that I’m sure held pithy articles that I planned to use as inspiration for a future book. The only problem was I couldn’t remember why I’d saved most of them. I also shredded numerous drafts of SHORT CHANGE, enough to fill my blue recycling bin. Hint: As you can see, the bins are quite voluminous.

My friend the environmentalist tells me that shredding paper isn’t a good thing. She says it takes up too much space. Despite her admonition, once I’ve turned in the last draft of a novel to my editor, I shred all of the previous ones.

I shred those pages because I’m paranoid—hey, I’ve lived in Los Angeles a long time. I have the right—but my caution comes from experience. After I finished my first novel, I had what seemed like a gazillion manuscripts lying around. My house is on the small side, so I had only two choices. Get rid of all that paper or buy a machete to hack my way to the front door.

So I started shredding.

My Main Man watched as I toiled over the Fellows.

“Why don’t you just throw that stuff in the recycling bin?” he said.

“What if somebody steals it?”

“You’re being paranoid. Nobody is going to steal your marked up manuscript pages.”

It did seem unlikely, but this was L.A. Strange things happen here. On the other hand, shredding took a lot of time, time that could be spent writing books. So I took his advice and dumped all of the copies of my Great American Novel into the blue bin. I felt sheepish, but at the last minute I caved in to my misgivings and mixed up all of the pages. If somebody wanted to read that puppy, they'd have to be committed.

Thursday night I rolled the bin out to the curb for pick-up. Friday morning I went outside, opened the lid, and found that every single solitary page of every manuscript was missing—stolen in the dead of night.

“Think of it this way,” MM said. “Thanks to you some homeless guy has wallpaper.”

Yeah, that or my novel was on its way to New York with a nice cover letter.

I’ll admit that I don’t shred all of the pages of my manuscripts. I save the ones that have critique notes penned by members of my writing group. Brilliant Tish. Effervescent Barb. Too-cool Elaine. Insightful Steve. TM who always writes “funny” by the sentences that make him chuckle. I live for those “funny”s. I keep all of those notes, because there are some things you just can’t bear to part with. Our group disbanded last fall. People moved away. I miss them. And I’m sorry to say that in the future I’ll have more paper to shred.


And now—tah dah—the photos you've been waiting for. On Sunday I attended the 5th Annual West Hollywood Book Fair along with fellow NakedAuthor and bon vivant, Paul Levine. Paul moderated a panel called "Writers Who Thrill," which included Andrew Klavan, Gayle Lynds, Thomas Perry, and Theresa Schwegel.

Afterwards he signed books at the Mysterious Galaxy booth.

I was on a panel called "Funny Ladies" with Jerrilyn Farmer, Harley Jane Kozak, Sue Ann Jaffarian, and moderated by Bob Levinson. Here we are trying to look cool in the sweltering heat.

Some of the other authors who attended—

Marissa Batt, Rochelle Krich, Gary Phillips

Dick Lochte and Denise Hamilton

Steven Hodel and James Lincoln Warren

Susan Kandel with her pup

And congrats to Our Jacqueline. Her MESSENGER OF TRUTH was once again on the Los Angeles Times Bestsellers List on Sunday.

And congrats to Tom whose picture was featured in the "Calender" section. Yeah!

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Pilgrim's Progress — More Ramblings From The Road

from Jacqueline

... Minneapolis ... Chicago ... Cleveland tomorrow ... and so it continues: the book tour. As I said last week, or was it the week before, it’s great meeting the booksellers and the readers of one’s books, but the bits in between – airports, taxis and hotels – leave something to be desired. Mind you, there’s much to nudge the imagination.

Take airports. Richard Curtis, the director of Love Actually, had it right when he decided to make the comings and goings at an airport the basis for a story about love – you see everything at an airport. And me? I’m a people-watcher at the best of times, in fact most writers pay attention even when they think they’re not – you notice the way a man flicks a cigarette to the floor and twists it into the ground with the sole of his shoe, or the way a woman struggles to push a buggy through a door and the only person who tries to help her is an elderly lady, herself burdened by bags. I’ve done my fair share of watching and observing this past few weeks, not because I’ve set out to look at people, but just because I’ve been at airports and you see a lot of emotion at an airport. And you see things that make you think.

Like the young woman in the ladies room in – where was it? Minneapolis, I think – in her brown, beige and white camouflage uniform and light desert boots. She was applying make-up, carefully wielding the mascara wand, then a blusher brush and finally a swoosh of reddish-brown lipstick. She brushed out her sun-kissed blonde hair, then pulled a lovely leather purse from her kitbag and threw a few essentials into it before going out into the terminal and off down to baggage claim. I thought that, perhaps, she was coming home on leave, and suspected her boyfriend was somewhere waiting to meet her outside. And I’d wondered where she’d been, and where she might go next. More than anything, I wondered what she might see, once she’s back on duty, but those desert fatigues told a story all their own.

At another airport I saw a middle-aged couple with their disabled son, a young man in his late teens, I would have thought. Both parents seemed to have a casual elegance about them, and, though burdened by bags for three, along with a few extra bags, they were so graceful in every movement. I wondered about that, as people struggled around me with over-laden luggage, or so it seemed. The woman was dressed in smart beige slacks topped with a rich yellow sweater, Her bag and scarf were yellow, and her shoes were beige and yellow. The father wore beige slacks and a deep aubergine-colored jacket. I mention the clothes because the son was wearing clothes in colors that complemented his parents’ attire – there he was in a yellow shirt, and aubergine pants. And each parent held one of his hands as they waited for their flight, only occasionally revealing a level of concern in the way that they looked at each other and then at their son. Were they going to visit friends? Taking him to college for the first time, a place where he would have to venture forward into the world on his own? Or were they just on vacation, the three of them getting away from home, with all the hassles that come with traveling with the physically challenged.

Then a couple of days ago, at another airport, there was the woman who touched my soul and whom I haven’t quite managed to get out of my mind since. I won’t say where I was, just in case, after all, you never can tell, someone who knows the woman might read this post. Stranger things have happened. I was at the gate, waiting for my flight to finally start boarding. A delay was expected and it would be a while, so I began reading my Newsweek. I became aware of the sound of sobbing. It was no ordinary sobbing, the sort you hear when someone has just said their goodbyes at security control, but a deep keening that came from the soul. I looked around and saw, about six seats along from me, a woman bent double, just breaking her heart. It was so wrenching that I could physically feel her despair. I saw the people sitting close by begin to move away. Such situations can be difficult, because approaching the person may be met with even more sadness, or perhaps aggression, so I simply concentrated saying the words to myself, “May she know peace.” It’s from what the Buddhists call a meditation of loving kindness.

A young woman from United Airlines came along, and I have to say, she was just terrific. She wasn’t in uniform, and I imagine she was some sort of caregiver who deals with such situations. She knelt in front of the woman, and just began talking to her, then encouraged her to stand and walk a few steps – at which point she sat her down next to me. The United woman and I exchanged looks, and I gathered that the distressed passenger had imbibed a strong drink or two, which of course isn’t unusual in difficult circumstances. Then she went off to get some coffee for the still-sobbing woman. People were looking across, then quickly away, or peeping over their newspapers. My heart went out to her, so I simply rested my hand on hers, whereupon she clung on to me as if for dear life.

We managed to find out who was picking her up at her destination, and the United representative made arrangements for the woman to travel later, and to be picked up from the airport, and in the midst of all of this we discovered where she was going, and why, and pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place – it’s her story, and intensely private. The woman held on to me until I left to board my flight, and I had to run as I’d waited until they were just about to close the gate.

I’ve wondered about that woman ever since, and the couple with the son, and the soldier with her make-up kit. You see it all at airports, the laughter, tears, the joy, the frustrations, the boredom, the rich and not so rich. And I know this might sound sappy, or hackneyed, but from what I’ve seen, most of the time – aside from those who are having a crabby moment – are events and vignettes of stories that make me realize why Curtis called his film Love, Actually.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Titanic, Story Unsinkable

from James

I took my kids to the Titanic Exhibit at the Miami Museum of Science this weekend. They seem to have inherited a fascination with that tragedy from their old man. My fifth-grade daughter is currently reading “SOS Titanic” by Eve Bunting, and her younger brother’s favorite Magic Treehouse book is “Tonight on the Titanic.”
It was a well-worthwhile exhibit. At the entrance, they give each person a “boarding pass” with the name and age of an actual passenger on it. As you leave the exhibit, you check the names on the big board, and it tells you if you survived or not. I was a 28-year-old man traveling in third class on a ship where lifeboats were for first class passengers and mostly “women and children.” So I kind of knew my fate before we even started.

I’ve actually incorporated my fascination with the Titanic into my writing. I can recall at least two references to it in my novels.

The more obscure one was in my second novel, “The Informant.” A vicious serial killer is terrorizing Miami. After several murders, someone calls a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter at the Miami Tribune and tells him that he can predict the killer’s next victim—but he wants to be paid for his information. Is he the killer, or is he the clairvoyant evil genius he claims to be? And which is worse?

I’m not giving anything away by telling you that this scary guy went by the alias “Ernest Gill.” Gill was a real person. And he was involved in one of the most infamous cases of “checkbook journalism.” Gill was an Irish sailor onboard the SS Californian—the ship that many people claimed was near the sinking Titanic and ignored her distress calls. Gill’s salary was five English pounds a month. A Boston newspaper paid him five hundred dollars—this is in 1912, mind you—for his story that Lord Stanley, the captain of the Californian, saw distress flares fired from the Titanic but just kept going. Kind of an interesting historical tidbit in a novel that deals with a deadly game of checkbook journalism.

My other Titanic reference appears in “Lying with Strangers.” There, Kevin Stokes is a lawyer in a big Boston firm who has just sold his first novel to a major publisher. He has always dreamed of doing a reading and signing at a local bookstore called Book Lovers, but unfortunately, Book Lovers is about to go the way of many independent bookstores in this country. So he holds his event there before the store closes, even though his book is not yet published. Here’s how it goes . . . and Titanic enthusiasts will love this:

"Good evening," he said to a crowd of about a half dozen loyalists. "I’m Kevin
Stokes, and I have to say I’m more saddened than honored to be the last author
to speak at Booklovers’.”
"Excuse me" said a woman in the first row. "Your book’s not out yet?"
"Not yet. But I left a few copies of the manuscript here last week for anyone who wanted to check it out and read it. I see two of them are missing, so I guess somebody may have read it."
"I did." It was an old man, leaning against the bookshelves in the back. "Excellent book."
Kevin smiled. "Thank you. You read it?"
"Yes, and it’s a strange twist of fate that I did. Last Wednesday I got off the bus at the wrong stop, and it was raining, so I came into the bookstore. Resting right on the counter was this manuscript. I started reading it and couldn’t put it down."
"That’s great.
It’s supposed to be a thriller."
"Your wife’s a doctor, right?"
Kevin blinked. That was out of the blue. "Yeah."
"That’s right."
"I would guess she’s about twenty eight years old?"
He smiled nervously. It was getting a little personal. "This really isn’t about my wife."
"But it is. What do think, you have to pen an autobiography to reveal yourself though your writing?"
"I understand what you’re saying. But there’s no one like my wife in this book."
"She’s all over this book. You just don’t know it."
The tone was a little accusatory, the old man’s stare not exactly friendly.
Kevin averted his eyes and checked his notes, just to break away. "Anyway, the
rest of the crowd is probably wondering what we’re talking about, so let me tell
you something about the book."
"It’s about a beautiful and successful woman who is forced to make a life or death decision," the old man said.
"Well, there’s more to it than that. It’s about trust, betrayal, and—"
"A kidnapping. That’s the most important thing."
Said Kevin, "I think the characters are most important."
"Hah! You’ve preordained a tragedy. That’s what’s most important."
"This is a novel. I haven’t preordained anything."
"Is that what you think? Just write the story and wash your hands of it? Fourteen years before the Titanic went to the bottom of the ocean, there was a novel written about the exact same thing. The Wreck of the Titan or Futility by Morgan Robertson. Some called it prophetic, but prophecy merely foretells the future. I believe Mr. Robertson’s book actually shaped it. It’s in the Bible, mister. Nothing new under the sun. By writing this story, you’ve sealed someone’s fate."
"It’s a story. It’s all made up."
"Where do you live?"
"I don’t think I want to answer that."
"I know where you live."
He was glaring with contempt from the back of the room. No one in the crowd
moved. Finally, the owner approached the angry old man.
"Excuse me, sir. But
I’m going to have to ask you to leave."
He was frozen, his eyes locked onto Kevin.
"Sir, don’t make me call the police."
He scowled and said, "I was leaving anyway."
Now, the most remarkable thing about this scene from Lying with Strangers is not that there actually was a book called “The Wreck of the Titan or Futility” that seems to have some eerie foretelling of the Titanic’s fate. To me, the really creepy thing is that this scene, as I wrote it, is based on an actual event in my own life.

I was on tour for my third novel, "The Abduction," having a wonderful time at a terrific bookstore called Liberty’s in Boca Raton—another independent that has since bitten the dust. Some guy joined us late and became unruly. He kept raising his hands and asking questions out of turn, rattling me much the same way this guy rattles Kevin in “Lying with Strangers.” It wasn't quite as bad as the fictional version, but it upset me and the store manager a good deal at the time. I even notified my publisher about it, and wasn't sure I wanted to continue my tour. I did continue, however, and ultimately, I decided to deal with that incident the way all writers deal with things that scare them, haunt them, bug them, or nibble at their paranoia.

I wrote about it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Talk Story

By Cornelia

alutations and thank you for being here today, O Esteemed Naked Readers... Friends... Romans... Members of the Jury... Persons Who Just Happened to Accidentally Click Through When We Accidentally Showed Up After You Accidentally Googled "Naked Weekend/Nurses/Rodeos/Operas/Feet/[Fill in the Blank]"... Meine Damen und Herren....

I am today both honored and pleased to share with you the news that (God willing and the creek don't rise, etc.) I shall, one week from tomorrow afternoon, be endeavoring to make a success of my first-ever paid speaking engagement, at the kind invitation of the Outdoor Art Club in Mill Valley, California. As such, I have been reflecting on past occasions during which I've found myself behind a podium, beginning with the debate in eighth grade social studies class when I donned a tam-o-shanter, Elvis-Costello-esque glasses, and an eyebrow-pencil moustache in order to more effectively impersonate Dr. S.I. Hayakawa, the Canadian-born semanticist then campaigning to unseat incumbent United States Senator John Tunney.

(seen here without his preferred headgear, but he totally did
wear tam-o-shanters at the slightest provocation--pinkie swear)

Despite my success in swaying the parental audience in Hayakawa's favor that evening, I take no responsibility for his part in the passage of Proposition 13, the property-tax initiative which many blame for the subsequent implosion of California's public school system.

aving survived this maiden speech without mishap, I eschewed the lecture circuit for the remainder of junior high in order to spend more time with my family and concentrate on my studies--not least since there wasn't exactly a plethora of local venues clamoring for appearances by an underage impersonator of small-statured Asian Republicans, no matter how limelight-mad she happened to have become following that first heady taste of public acclaim.

During my freshman year at Carmel High School, however, I reluctantly came out of retirement, feeling it was my duty to try the patience of the local Lions Club, seeing as how they had announced the advent of their annual student speech competition. The topic was "Tomorrow's Energy, Today's Dilemma," so after a potluck dinner and an all-hands round of patriotic songs, I walked across the cafeteria to deliver prepared remarks on solar panels, Stirling engines, wind turbines, biomass power generation, and the general need to diminish our nation's reliance on coal and petroleum.

I trounced fellow C.H.S. students Laura Edmonds and Nicole Hydorn, but had my butt handed to me some weeks later by this way-older chick from Santa Catalina in the Monterey County semi-finals. Bloodied but unbowed, I returned home with a commemorative pen-and-pencil desk set, which I cherish to this day.

pportunities to hone my oration chops were paltry-verging-on-nonexistent for the remainder of that year, though I was quoted in The Carmel Pine Cone after having leapt to my feet during the Q&A portion of a town council meeting to protest the proposed designation of "Carmel Rancho" as the official name for our secondary village zip code, on the grounds that "it just sounds really tacky."

Denied further excuses to trot out my burgeoning Inner Churchill, I fell into a despondent funk. Still, I kept all appendages crossed that I might someday discover an auditorium willing to have me... not like I want anything huge, I maintained during my nightly petition to the fates for a chance at more juvenile airtime... I mean, seriously, I don't even need a microphone or whatever. But my pleas fell on a deaf-eared cosmos until I lit out for New York as a sophomore.

ending my way eastward, I hoped against hope that this change in geographic affiliation might improve my chances at getting to babble in public. In retrospect, I'm thankful that Jerry Springer did not yet have a talk show to call his own, as I shudder to think what drastic measures I might have taken in order to quench my unrelenting monologue jones.

I was an odd child--the more typical thespic aspirations of my peers held no appeal. I didn't hanker after even the juiciest roles in some high-school-gym production of Blithe Spirit or You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Not for me those summer-drama-camp cabarets, those heartfelt juvenile-dinner-theatre star turns belting out "Tomorrow" or "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top."

he thing I wanted most to do was talk, unscripted. I wanted to pontificate, to expound--to speak, perchance to edify and amuse-- without the trammels of costume or character. Where the hell did that come from, my junior-varsity Bill Buckley-ness? My fetish for Robert's Rules of Order?

I confess I don't have the slightest clue. I was otherwise a shy kid, an outright geek. I still suffer from stage-fright when it's my turn to call the burrito place with a takeout order. I have no political aspirations, no impassioned agendas, no burning desire to rail against corporate skullduggery or the abnegation of the rights of baby seals or anything. I just really really like to stand up and spout random stuff in front of people. Wedding toasts, dinner-party anecdotes, diatribes when my sister was trying to get the zoning board to let her build a small addition to her old house. I don't plan what I'm going to say, I don't show up with a fistful of index cards or any prepared notes, I just love that moment when my buddies at a banquet-hall table tink their forks against glasses of ice water so I can stand up and ramble for a few minutes.

t's not like I'm always great at this, especially considering the no-notes part. There have been times when I totally fell on my flop-sweat ass, stammering and blushing my way through heinous chunks of utterly incoherent and unfunny blather. But oh, when it goes well! The rush of it, the joy... that surge of glorious feeling you get when you've tapped into a little piece of zeitgeist that matters for people who've been kind enough to lend you their ears. Nothing else compares, for those of us with a bardic bent. We want to step into Spalding Gray's or Perry Mason's hallowed shoes for just a little while, try our hands at conjuring down a skein of word-voodoo from the very air. I expect it's why people become trial lawyers, or cracker-barrel raconteurs, or shamans. It's heady stuff, when it works. I love to hear it done well even more than I enjoy the chance to offer up my own attempts at the art.

aybe I won't succeed at this a week from tomorrow, but it's really cool that the fine people at the Outdoor Art Club are willing to let me give it a go. I'm sure this speech-fetish thing is aligned very closely with the urge to write, but it's not the exact same compulsion. It feels like it falls somewhere between writing and acting, without being either.

It's not something that there's a whole lot of call for, in this day and age. Not to say we don't have contemporary lecture circuits, just that we don't see grand Chautauqua gatherings anymore, or clan dinners in the long hall at which a traveler might earn his keep for the night by reciting Beowulf. The heyday of Boston's Atheneum and even Manhattan's 92nd Street Y has passed. We have other entertainments, more readily accessible. And I don't say this to bemoan the loss of William Jennings Bryan while shaking my fist at the advent of iPods and HBO--I like my instant-gratification Sopranos fix as much as the next person. But there's something visceral about getting to "talk story," as the Hawaiians describe it, that isn't captured by any other medium.

ach time I've had the pleasure of listening to someone with a gift for the oral tradition, it has changed me--especially when I've heard it live. I can't imagine anyone is unmoved while watching Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, but it must have been a thousand times more gobsmacking to be standing on the Mall, taking in that golden arc of language direct from the source. I've been lucky enough to see a few raconteurs of world renown in action--Douglas Adams, Jimmy Carter, P.J. O'Rourke, and Madeleine L'Engle come to mind, as do the many fine mystery writers I've had the pleasure of listening to at conferences and book signings--but the speaker doesn't have to be globally famous to give me that pure hair-on-end pleasure of drinking in the spoken word. I have been moved to tears and/or shrieks of laughter by a great number of people who wouldn't consider themselves repositories of erudition, or even storytellers. Airplane seatmates, little kids, old dudes in bars, even this homeless guy my cousin Eric and I ran into outside a Manhattan deli at three a.m. one summer night when we were in high school--a raconteur of the highest order who spent half an hour standing on a milk crate describing this flock of dragons he swore was flying up third avenue by the light of the full moon.

I love it when people talk story, and as I've said herein I adore any chance to do it myself. The idea of actually getting paid for that pleasure is nothing short of miraculous, to me. I just hope I spout something worthy of the honorarium, though I worry it will make my Inner Winston swell up like a giant poison-toad pinata if all goes well in Mill Valley.